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There is a particular danger in enthusing over a big book. Namely, of becoming one of those people found on university campuses everywhere, who extol the virtues of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (“The footnotes really add another dimension to the narrative”) or Proust (“for the sensory experience”) or Thomas Pynchon (“for the radical deconstruction”). Who really has the time or energy to sit through 1,000 pages if not to just prove something to themselves out of endurance, or as a warped marker of their intellect?
For the record, I am a “big book guy”. I have read Foster Wallace, Pynchon and some Proust. In my defence, most of those texts were read for university courses and while I found them to be complex, multifaceted and linguistically interesting, they could have done with some serious pruning. The only big book that I have read that makes any sense at its length is the one I wish more people would give a chance: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.
On the surface, this 2019 Booker-shortlisted novel seems like the ur-text for any big book enthusiast: more than 1,000 pages of the internal monologue of a constantly-baking Ohioan housewife packed into a single sentence, broken up only by asides on the meandering journey of a wild lioness and her cubs, and the repeated phrase “the fact that”. Surely, this is the difficult big book to end all others? The one you can flaunt for the rest of your life as a badge of honour for your intellectual strength and stamina?
Yet, it is far less complicated and much more emotionally rich than that description makes it seem. The more you read, the more you realise it is a poetic masterpiece; a meandering text that gets about as close as you can to the real-time inner workings of a mind, zipping from parental worries to practical nuisances, paranoia and that all-important baking. As her lines rattle along from musical hooks to musings on pop culture, her children and the state of the world, it becomes a strangely soothing reading experience. Once you begin to skip over the many “the fact thats” as sentence breaks, Ellmann’s never-ending syntax starts to massage your mind into a gentle skimming of its significance. Before you know it, you’re 400 pages in and you now have an intimate knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie novels, of the filmography of Meryl Streep – namely 2009’s It’s Complicated – a step-by-step guide to making cinnamon rolls, and a litany of statistics about US school shootings and gun-related fatalities.
Crucially, Ellmann doesn’t include this knowledge as a marker of her own intelligence or as a means of establishing a grand narrative. She is merely mixing the mundane and the profound as our own minds so often do. She puts forward a fierce argument against gun ownership and private healthcare in the US, and for the nuances and mundanity of motherhood, without needing to spell out a word of it. In this way, she does not fall victim to the perils of many big books, such as Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Melville’s Moby-Dick, where the central, symbolic premise is spelled out in a character’s monologue or revelation. There is no big reveal here. There is no time for an epiphany in the information cascade of the internet – just the continual churn of facts and small realisations, while life takes its own ineffable course. And life needs its space to breathe and time to be explored and understood, which is why, despite its formidable length, this bookis the shortest it could be. Really, this is a book that could keep going on for ever.
Read Ducks, Newburyport, then, not to say you have read it (as I have done here) but to experience the essence of reading: achance to view the world through another person’s eyes. It doesn’t get more immersive, or more readable, than the 1,000 pages of Ellmann’s singular text.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: I wish more people would read … Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann | Fiction